It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Whitstable Oyster Festival

There are people who don’t like oysters. I’ll repeat that. There are people who don’t like oysters.

Why? That’s one of life’s great mysteries, like lumpy peanut butter, or Sandra Bullock. If you don’t like oysters, you should probably avoid reading on. And frankly, what are you reading a food blog for if you don’t like oysters?

I had good memories and high expectations of Whitstable. While training to be a teacher in Canterbury, I used to visit on spare days, swim in the sea, drink Guinness and eat oysters. That I’m now a journalist should tell you all you need to know about my success as a teacher, but Whitstable stuck with me.

For those of us that were brought up to believe you should only eat oysters when there’s an ‘r’ in the month, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find the oyster festival taking place in July. There is a fairly obvious advantage though: weather. On a late Sunday in July, it was beautiful.

We headed for the beach and the festival, but not before popping in at Wheelers to pick up half a dozen rock oysters. Wheelers is one of my favourite shops in England, so go. Its oysters, whelks, winkles, crabs and prawns are always delicious, and reasonable to boot. Our half dozen cost £3.50, which is really not bad.

Then on to the festival proper, complete with crowds, beer and Mackenzie Crook from The Office (a visitor, not an attraction). As well as seafood, there were stalls selling fruit, vegetables, trinkets, tat, booze, burgers, curry and the rest. It was a veritable greedy man’s paradise.

I won’t go through all the stalls. That would be boring (and impossible, given my slapdash approach to note taking). A couple of highlights though: the beer from Gadds (pictured) was spectacular, all bitter caramel and slightly plummy; the cherries and strawberries from four or five different stalls were great, as they should be at this time of year; and the various oyster sellers did their best.

Oddly, the oysters we ate, while fine, were really nothing special. The prized Whitstable natives were few and far between. Rock oysters were the norm, and are all well and good, especially when they’re abundant and cheap, but they’re hardly sophisticated. I eat mine with Tabasco, or sometimes lemon and black pepper, if you’re interested. At least there was no danger of catching an STD.

In the end though, it didn’t matter that the oysters were a bit of a disappointment. I swam in the sea, I bathed in the sun, I ate and drank well, and I saw old men singing sea shanties.

There was also the oyster eating competition. To my great annoyance, I arrived too late to register, but the sight of intrepid munchers guzzling half a dozen oysters and necking half a pint of stout in the fastest time possible is one to warm any cockles, if you’ll pardon the pun. I intend to take part next year.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Kadiri's, 26 Willesden High Road, Willesden

Cecil Rhodes once claimed that to be born an Englishman is to have won the lottery of life. While that was possibly true when he wrote it, and may even be true now to a degree, it has never applied to food. I’ve always thought that to be born Italian is to have won the lottery of eating. But even the Italians, with all that olive oil, all those tomatoes, and all that pasta, even the Italians don’t make curry.

One day, I’ll write a book about curry houses I’ve known and loved. From Tamarind to Tayyabs, The Painted Heron to The Lahore Kebab House, if the answer isn’t curry, then the question’s wrong. Whether it costs 80 pounds and boasts a Michelin star or sets you back a tenner and lets you bring your own booze, this food is always the right option.

Now, I’ve been to a lot of curry houses in London. The very best fall into two camps: the cheap, cheerful and sizzling, and the expensive, refined and subtle. Geographically, the places to go are out East, or Wembley way, or in Southall (which is so far West it’s not even really London). There are a couple of crackers in town too, in Mayfair and Soho. In my experience, West London and slightly North West has always been a little bit of a curry hinterland. Yes, there are restaurants. Some of them are fine. But I’ve never been to a really brilliant one.

So when I heard positive things about Kadiri’s in scruffy Willesden, I wasn’t expecting too much. The menu looked the part, but still, it was in Willesden.

So how was it? Good. Very good.

We couldn’t decide what to eat, but after the obligatory popadums – thin, delicate and not at all greasy – we decided to go for broke. It’s a sign of a really good place when the menu inclines you towards the vegetable curries, and with chana daal, paneer with spinach and coconut (palak paneer), and aubergine curry, we were so inclined. But limiting yourself is no good either, so we also ordered a ‘small’ mixed grill and the house speciality, mutton biryani, just to ensure we had enough. Oh, and pesharwi naan too. And mango lassis.

They came together at our request, but I’ll deal with them in the order, roughly, that I tried them. First, the grill, where lamb chops were explosively flavoured with ginger and garam masala, tandoori chicken was colourful and lamb mince kababs were juicy and chilli-heavy. For a small portion, it was enormous - £11.95 for ten large, beautifully cooked pieces of meat. I always think you can tell a lot about a curry restaurant by its lamb chops. Kadiri’s, while not in the same league as the best I’ve ever had (The Lahore Kebab House in Whitechapel), were great. Probably in the top five.

The other litmus dish for a curry house is daal. And boy, this daal was good - garlic and burnt garlic, salt and turmeric, spilt chickpeas and all sorts of other goodness. On the thin, sweet peshawri naan, stuffed with mango, the daal was truly wonderful, though you'll taste the garlic for days afterwards.

The aubergine curry was less exciting, but also perfectly cooked. Often, aubergine in curry disintegrates. Sometimes, it’s too greasy. Occasionally, it gets lost in the other flavours, all the onions and cumin and paprika. This did none of those things. It was a relatively unambitious, well-executed and no-nonsense dish. It was delicious.

I’ve never liked paneer. I’ve always lumped it in with halloumi as a cheese that is invariably badly cooked. If I want to chew rubber, I’ll ... um, perhaps not. But a visit to Greece earlier this year taught me that I was wrong about halloumi. And Kadiri’s taught me that I had misjudged paneer too. This was glorious. The spinach and coconut sauce was not too sweet, though it felt creamy and indulgent. But the revelation was the texture of the cheese itself, soft but coherent, and with none of that horrible squeaky texture I used to dread.

Lastly, there was the house special, complete with kitsch earthenware pot. In a meal with many highlights, this was the highest lit. The mutton was so slow cooked as to be melting. The surrounding rice was cardamom and saffron heavy. The ensemble was luxurious and slightly fatty – so rich and yet, still, so clean. I’ve never had one like it, but I will have it again.

Unfortunately, there were just two of us, and my wife, Cute Letts, had eaten some chips after work so hadn’t brought her A-game appetite. We had lots left over. The excellent waiting staff barely batted an eyelid when we asked them to box it all up for us to take home. I’ve had it twice since. We spent £60 pounds on this meal, including service and a before unmentioned large bottle of sparkling water, and it was worth every penny. If we’d have ordered sensibly (i.e., just the paneer, daal and mutton), it would have been less than half that.

They also do feasting dishes – one family had an entire leg of lamb come out while we were there. It looked great, and they devoured it in about 10 minutes. Perhaps the only thing to note is that the restaurant does not sell alcohol, and it doesn’t let you bring your own – no great problem, but worth knowing before you go.

I live in NW10, and now I have a restaurant locally that sells excellent curry (and delivers it). So I’m happy.

Phil Letts' take: 8/10

Kadiri's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Recipe: A Summertime Sausage Casserole

People place much store beside the ‘leftovers’ recipe. This is one of those, but that doesn’t mean it has to be. It happened that I had most of these ingredients in the house, that I was about to go and do a nice big veg shop, and that the tomatoes were ripened to the point where cooking seemed like the best option. Apart from the tomato, onion and lemon, most of the other components could be exchanged. The broad beans could probably be butter beans (though they might not be as pleasingly firm), the chipolatas could certainly be more extravagant, and you could serve this on bruschetta or any decent bread. The main thing is to enjoy the jammy sweetness of the tomato and onion alongside the meaty, fatty sausages and the clean, refreshing lemon. The broad beans are al dente, providing a lovely contrast with the stickyness of the rest of the dish. It’s delicious, I promise, though I’m not a chef.
6 good chipolatas (or other not too strong sausages)
A handful of broad beans
8 medium-sized tomatoes (the better, the better)
1 decent-sized onion
1 lemon
A few basil leaves
A good pinch of sugar
Salt, pepper
A glug or two of olive oil

First, remove the broad beans from their pods. Put them in a pan of boiling water for a couple of minutes, then drain and run under cold water until cool. Then you can squeeze the lovely grass-coloured beans from their paler jackets. This is very satisfying, but may leave you with some slightly squashed beans. I prefer to unzip them, ripping the join at the top of the bean and removing it in a slightly more delicate fashion. Set aside.
Peel the tomatoes – put them whole into boiling water for 30 seconds, remove, cool in cold water, and the skin should peel off relatively easily. It doesn’t matter if you can’t get all the skin off, but you do want to remove most of it. Chop the peeled tomatoes roughly, and set aside.
Brown your sausages in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Use a little olive oil to start them off, but they will leave a bit of fat in the pan, so you don’t need much oil at all. Once brown, remove from the pan and set aside.
Now for the base. Finely chop your onion, and gently fry in the same pan until softened. I often get impatient with the ‘softened’ instruction in recipes, but here it is absolutely vital. Add your chopped tomatoes, with a generous sprinkle of salt, and a good pinch of sugar. Cook on a medium to low heat for as long as you can bear (15 minutes or so), stirring from time to time until the whole caboodle takes on a slightly jammy consistency. The sugar helps with this. Then add the juice of your lemon, and if the mood takes you, a little of its zest. Bubble for a couple of minutes, then return the sausages to the pan, mixing them through the gooey mush. I put the lid on here, and leave for about 8 minutes. You don’t want too much of the liquid escaping. If you’re using larger sausages, you might want to increase the cooking time.
Grab a few basil leaves and tear them into the pot about two minutes before you’re finished. They’ll disappear into the mix, but you'll still be able to taste them. Also add the reserved broad beans, and let the whole mix bubble slowly for the final couple of minutes with the lid off. Add a lot of black pepper and a final glug of olive oil, and serve with a couple more basil leaves as a garnish.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

In praise of...Breadmakers

There’s a time and a place for really bad bread. The time is mid-afternoon, and the place is a service station forecourt. At such moments, only the insipid, pallid, cloying experience of the thin white slice will do. Ideally, bread such as this will be filled with processed cheese – unnaturally slick, almost completely flavourless, and yet somehow compelling, like TV soap operas, or Richard Madeley.

But we can’t have this, I hear you exclaim! You’re supposed to be writing about food. Garage sandwiches aren’t food. Well, quite.

As any good Crouch Ender knows, the only way to do bread is to make your own. And by make your own, I don’t just mean shoving some ingredients into a metal bowl with a mixing arm and waiting for electricity to do the rest. No, if you want truly fabulous bread, you need to put in the graft: kneading, turning, slapping, waiting, covering, prooving, shaping, baking. It’s fun, but you need a morning, at least. In truth, it’s the selection of the unemployed/food writer.

Surely, though, the choice isn’t an either/or. Surely it’s not just artisan or Mighty White. Not quite, no. There’s a third way, a middle ground between the disgusting certainties of the plastic-wrapped loaf and the temperamental thrills of the twisty homemade baguette. Breadmakers are good. Sure, it’s cheating, and sure, the loaves they produce don’t taste as good as bread that’s been properly fingered, but they have several clear advantages.

Time: In 2010, does anyone really have time to make bread properly? Sheeeeeit, I barely have time to buy it. With a breadmaker, such problems disappear. One trip to the supermarket will bag you enough flour for say, six loaves. Total time spent: 15 minutes. Then each loaf takes about 10 minutes to prepare. On average, that’s about 12.5 minutes per loaf. Compare that to buying cheapy loaves (about 15 minutes each) or fashioning something fancy (at least two hours), and you’re onto a winner. And yes, I’m aware that you still have to bake it, but with a teeny bit of planning, you can do that overnight. Which leads me to the next advantage of the method...

Smell: Ever wanted to live in a bakery? Me neither, but there’s nothing like waking up near one, is there? Indeed, some have argued that France was actually invented to cater for Brits who like the smell of freshly baking bread in the morning. But in England alas, it’s pretty unusual to live within sniffing distance of a good bakery. The breadmaker solves this problem. Just set the baking programme overnight, to finish about 6.30 a.m., and you’ll wake up to a wonderful scent that makes you feel like some sort of rustic medieval legend. Unless you can knead in your sleep, you’ll find it difficult to wake up to a handmade loaf like that.

Smug: The only reason anyone ever makes bread is to feel good about themselves (apart from bakers – they do it to make a living). You may ‘just prefer it,’ you may even believe that ‘it’s so much better for you’, and you can whine on about ‘preservatives’ as much as you want, but I’ve got news for you. People actually make bread so they can say: ‘Oh yes, I made this bread, it’s so easy, really, I do stuff like this all the time’. They’re the sorts of people that would like to own chickens so they can have fresh eggs each morning, but don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m definitely one of them. Now while a breadmaker doesn’t allow you to be quite as smug as fiddling with dough would, it’s a start. You still feel better than the 98 per cent of the population that think sophistication is the Tesco farmhouse granary loaf. It’s alright – you’re supposed to feel like that.

So for all you budding breadmaker buyers, what’s next? Well, you need a machine. Which is the best? I don’t know, but I had a Kenwood, and I have a Morphy Richards (pictured, poorly), and they’re both good, though I’d say the Morphy Richards is slightly better.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Old Hat Club, 11 July, somewhere near Angel tube station

Disclaimer: I should declare an interest. The Old Hat Club is run by some of my favourite people, and my experience there was the reason for the launch of this blog. So you should take everything that follows in that context. That said, it’s still an amazing little place, and I don’t think my generous review would have been any less so if I hadn’t already known Harry, Emma, Ami and Tim (or HEAT, if you prefer).

First, the clientele: you know this scene has got a little bloated when more than half the guests at a pop-up restaurant are food bloggers. That’s like, cannibalism, man. The reason was all the lovely Prosecco, supplied by Riccardo, who had invited said bloggers to promote his rather good drink. A good reason, indeed.
Guests were welcomed with a cocktail – a strawberry and Prosecco concoction laced with black pepper. A little bit of summer in a glass, and something to lubricate the vocal chords. Outside in the garden, next to the frankly intimidating (in a manly way) wood burning oven, we were offered some super black pudding pastry canap├ęs, and some even superer red pepper and bottarga follow-ups, all fresh from the aforementioned oven.
Then inside for lunch proper, and scrowlers stuffed with herbs (the fennel and dill stood out, but there were others) on tomatoes on bruschetta for starter. This was the course of the day, seriously good. A note on scrowlers: they are sardines, but clearly someone thought the world needed lots of words for that particular fish, so some Cornish folk call them scrowlers. Even more impressive was that some unlucky soul had successfully removed every single bone from the fish before stuffing – not easy. The contrast between the sweet tomatoes and fishy, salty scrowler is one that others have exploited in the past. But that’s because it’s great. Sometimes, there’s a reason for doing it like they do it in the Med.

Then onward, to a main course that played on the same tongue-lust for salt and sweet. The slow cooked pork with crackling was melty enough to feel indulgent, yet robust enough to give you something to chew. This atop a sweet, smoked, butternut squash puree – that magic oven again – and some ridiculously naughty, crunchy, goose-fat and smoke covered potatoes. Only something so wrong could taste so good.
That the pork was the least interesting course should tell you everything you need to know about the dessert. A kind of Moroccan citrus tart with sorbet, it was sweet, bitter, giving and cakey in one easy mix. The ginger and sour cherry Florentines that followed were the icing on the cake (or rather, the crunchy biscuit on the tart).
For £30, you won’t do a lot better in London. Anywhere. Really. Just ask all those bloggers.

Phil Letts' take: 9/10

Monday, 12 July 2010


It's not fancy, it's not big, and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. In a world where every other person is a food blogger, and many even think that makes them important, it may just be time for a little humility. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs, caffs and kit, you've come to the right place.